As both sides seem to be drawing back from continued conflict and as perhaps we are seeing the end of the latest violence in Gaza, it is an apposite time to look at the demographic reality of Gaza. Although the numbers of civilians killed and wounded cannot be precisely known (and I am surprised how many reports have accepted the Gaza Health Ministry statistics at face value) there are undoubtedly many, many civilians who have lost their lives. Among those civilians there are large numbers of children, and this number may be exacerbated by Gaza’s unusual demographic structure. In short, Gaza is home to a very young population. According to the New Scientist:
“…the Gaza Strip’s population of roughly 1.8 million has an unusually large proportion of children. Figures for 2013 from Index Mundi, the internet source of country data, show that that 43.5 per cent of the population is aged 14 or under, compared with 32 per cent in Egypt and 27 per cent in Israel. The median age in Gaza is 18, compared with a world average of 28. In most European countries it’s about 40, and it is 30 in Israel. Only in a dozen or so African countries is the median age lower, reaching 15 in Uganda.”
Why is it that there are so many children? First, Gaza is the place in the world where the least number of women work outside the home. Only 14.7% of women are in the labour market (as opposed to 70-80% in Scandinavia). Instead of working, the women of Gaza seem to be having babies. Gaza has a fertility rate of 4.4 children per women, among the highest in the world although almost half the rate it was in 1991 (an eye-watering 8.3!) Interestingly, in Gaza this is encouraged by the traditional practise of employers paying men more money in extra wages as their families expand (an enlightened tradition that would do much to encourage child bearing in other countries with fertility rate issues…) This means that it is easier for families to cope on a single income. What is apparently harder to understand is why Gazan women choose to have large families:
“One puzzle, however, is why so many Gazan women – especially those that are well-educated – choose to have large families rather than pursue careers. In most countries, the birth rate usually falls hand in hand with better education and more career opportunities for women, but the pattern in Gaza fails to follow this pattern.
A study published in 2006 found that despite high educational achievement among Gazan women – all have at least nine years of schooling – and relatively low and constant infant mortality rates at around 25 per 1000 births, few chose to pursue independent careers. During the Intifada uprising that began in 1987, the research found, there was a surge in marriage rates, with many educated women prepared to marry men who were less well-educated.
‘Palestinian women are not having lots of children because they don’t know about contraception, or can’t access contraception,’ says Sara Randall, an anthropologist at University College London, who co-authored the 2006 investigation. ‘So one has to conclude that they actually want lots of children.’”
They actually want lots of children? What crazy world are these Gazan women living in? Wanting to do the most amazing thing in the world (have a child) repeatedly? What is wrong with these women? However, there is probably an easier explanation for this: Israel.
“Whether the phenomenally high fertility levels in Gaza are also a more long-term response to political oppression and a perceived need to increase the numbers of Palestinians cannot be inferred from the data available, but it certainly seems to be a plausible hypothesis,” concludes Randall’s study. “In a situation where disempowerment, underemployment and marginalisation have left few opportunities for expression of identity, reproduction is one of the few liberties which remains, and also contributes to the larger goal of increasing the Palestinian people,” it says.Pedersen says that a sense of duty to expand the population is a factor that can’t be dismissed. “There have been statements from Hamas urging women to have more children to create a larger army,” he says.”
Actually, what I should have said is that the easier explanation is Hamas. Hamas is urging Gazan women to create future terrorists by having babies (who wouldn’t want to see their son or daughter grow up to be a suicide bomber?) and at the same time has helped to curtail most of their people’s liberties so that reproduction is one of the few that remain to Gazan women. Obviously that is on oversight on Hamas’ part – just wait until they get some tips on how to control reproduction from the Chinese government.